The Punisher: Preacher of Justice

BY ERICK SORENSEN

Job’s friend Zophar had it up to here! He was done hearing Job defend himself in the midst of his suffering. Surely, Job must have done SOMETHING to bring all this calamity upon himself. After all, it’s pretty simple: God allows bad things to happen to bad people. God allows good things to happen to good people. Period. Full Stop. End of story.

The problem is, Job doesn’t fit that simplistic (and false) narrative. He has done nothing to bring the loss of his children, his health, and his wealth upon himself. But Zophar’s theology can’t allow such mystery. This possibility cannot be allowed. And with each word of Job’s protest, Zophar becomes more and more heated. He must put a stop to this nonsense talk of Job RIGHT NOW! And so in a spate of self-righteous, insecure words recorded for us in Job 11, he will show us what it looks like when someone decides to preach a message to punish. He begins by shaming:

“Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and a man full of talk be judged right? Should your babble silence men, and when you mock, shall no one shame you?” (v. 2-3)

You can just hear the indignation in his voice can’t you? He continues.

“Oh, that God would speak and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom! … Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (v. 5-6)

Wow! It’s hard to think of anything more insensitive to say to a sufferer than this: “Job, even though you’ve lost all your kids, all your crops and all your health, you’re gettin’ off easy buddy!”

And yet, even as I recoil from such words, I can’t help but think of a time some years back when a friend came to me confessing a sin he was struggling with. I’d love to tell you that I brought absolution to my buddy. Instead, I wanted to shame him. So in a flurry of emotion, I looked at him and said, “Well, I hope you’re ready, because I’m gonna hammer you with God’s Law!”

FAIL!

Needless to say, this way of going about things didn’t work out so hot… It never does.

But by this point, Job’s friend is only interested in punishing him for his supposed “secret sin.” And so he continues, lecturing Job on great truths about God.

“Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea. If he passes through and imprisons and summons the court, who can turn him back?” (v. 7-10)

Now everything Zophar says here is true. The problem is that none of these truths about God are even close to the truths Job needs to hear in the moment. To comfort Job, he presents him with a God who is in control of everything. He points Job to the “deep things” of God (as if he understands them himself), a God who is above it all. But what Job really needed to hear and what we need to hear is that our God is a God who is in it all with us.

Lutheran theologian and pastor, Helmut Thielicke led a Church in Germany during World War II. Having seen much suffering, he made every effort to comfort his people with the grand truth of God’s being with us in our suffering. He wrote,

“Jesus Christ did not remain at base headquarters in heaven, receiving reports of the world’s suffering from below and shouting a few encouraging words to us from a safe distance. No, he left the headquarters and came down to us in the front-line trenches, right down to where we live, where we contend with our anxieties and the feeling of emptiness and futility, where we sin and suffer guilt, and where we must finally die. There is nothing that he did not endure with us. He understands everything.”

In another place he promised his parishioners, “At the bottom of every abyss He stands beside me.”

But Zophar has no interest in declaring such comforting truths. Instead, in his final words of punishment, he charges Job to fix himself.

“If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents.” (v. 13-14)

“It’s so simple Job. All you have to do is prepare your own heart, stretch out your own hands toward him, stop sinning, and then keep on not sinning, and everything between you and God will be hunky-dory.”

My friend Matt Richard says this sort of preaching is the equivalent of throwing a swimming manual at a drowning man. We may be giving the man the right information for how to save himself from drowning, but the reality is, he’s TOTALLY incapable of saving himself from drowning! The man needs a lifeguard!

When the ‘The Punisher’ comes throwing it all back on Job to save himself, that’s what he’s doing. He’s throwing a swimming manual at a drowning man!

So here’s the reality. As we have taken a brief survey of what a punishing message sounds like, it becomes clear that every one of us at some point or another has had experience with such messages. We may think of a time that a friend, relative, or literal preacher talked to us this way. Or we may think of times when we’ve spoken to people this way as I did with my good friend. We may think of the many times that we speak to ourselves this way: shaming, lecturing—trying to save ourselves.

What we need when this punishing voice comes our way are the reassuring words of the Gospel!

If shame is coming your way and tells you that you deserve worse when you’re suffering, you who have been freed up in the Gospel don’t need to disagree. As a matter of fact you can say: “Sure, in and of myself I don’t merely deserve shame here, but I deserve shame in eternity too. But my hope is not resting on what I deserve. My hope is resting on Christ, and He took my shame upon the Cross. He has risen from the dead and left my shame in the grave.”

When the lecture comes to you only sharing those unlimited truths about God that condemn, you can shout, “Yes, all these things are true about God and more. But the God I worship in Jesus Christ is a God who though He is unlimited, made Himself limited to a diaper and a mother’s breast in a stable. So I will not be punished by your lecture about the hidden God, but I will hope in the revealed God through Jesus Christ who loves me and will never leave me.”

And when the Zophars of the world (whether internal or external) come throwing swimming manuals at you as you drown you can yell, “Dear Zophar, though you say I must ‘prepare my own heart,’ I know that I cannot prepare my own heart for it is dead. Though you say I must ‘stretch out my hands,’ I find myself stretching my hands out to sin. Iniquity is in my hand, and I can’t seem to put it far away. And as much as I know it’s wrong, injustice does dwell in my tents. But that is not the end of my story because I have a Lifeguard and he has scooped me up, breathed life into me and stretched out my hands toward Him. He has forgiven me of all my iniquity. And though injustice may dwell in my tent, it is no longer held against me because I am covered by His perfect justice handed to me at the Cross!”

May God spare us from being ‘The Punisher’ and make us ‘Proclaimers’—heralds of good news both to ourselves, and our friends in the midst of their suffering!

Erick is married to Melissa and they have 3 boys together. He earned his Master of Divinity Degree from Lutheran Brethren Seminary and has served as a Pastor in Fontana, California and Staten Island, New York. He also serves as the Chairman of Fifth Act Church Planting. In September of 2015 Erick started to plant Epiphany Lutheran Church in Manhattan.

Twitter @ErickSorensen